Saturday 5 October 2013

Crowning The Dummy

Like A Beckett Play: An overwhelming sense of fragility; of life in suspension; of history sucking up every available atom of breathable air. When will New Zealanders stop looking up to a monarch and start looking around - to themselves?

IT WAS A SCENE that would have done Samuel Beckett proud.
An old woman sits primly in an armchair, warmed by an electric fire. The fussily furnished room is festooned with family photographs and ceramic knick-knacks. The atmosphere of the scene is stuffy and oppressive. There’s an overwhelming sense of fragility; of life in suspension; of history sucking up every available atom of breathable air.
Seated opposite the old woman is a middle-aged man with an over-eager smile. He is dressed like a prosperous provincial accountant, and it is clear that just being in the room with the old woman represents the fulfilment of a boyhood dream.
They are talking to one another – although it is difficult to say what about. The old woman’s conversation is polite but inconsequential. She speaks as if she’s reading the lines of a play once popular, but now only ever performed to modest and ageing audiences.
Undaunted, the middle-aged man listens intently: his attention not at all diminished by the old woman’s sing-song delivery. Clearly, some weird alchemical miracle is taking place. In the middle-aged man’s brain the old woman’s leaden commonplaces are being transmuted into the purest rhetorical gold.
Beyond this and all the other rooms in the castle, the world goes on its merry way. Fallen empires refuse to rise. Children are blown to pieces by suicide bombers. Billions are wagered on stock markets and trillions consigned to tropical tax havens. Ice melts in the arctic. Deserts advance. Lovers embrace.
But in this stuffy drawing room nothing changes. The old woman sits and talks inconsequentially to “galloping colonial clots” who hang upon her every word, believing, in spite of everything that they have seen and done and made of themselves, that the bizarre tableau of which they are a part is more than it seems.
That it matters.
Another notable scene occurs in Ettore Scola’s 1982 movie That Night In Varennes. The plot revolves around a group of travellers who get caught up in King Louis XVI’s abortive attempt to escape the revolution in Paris.
As the revolutionary government’s officials dither, a debate ensues concerning the nature of monarchy among those now stranded at the local inn. Some of the travellers, in true Enlightenment fashion, dismiss monarchy as irrational. Others remain convinced of its quasi-religious power. Its magic.
As if to prove both sides correct, the King’s servants roll into the room a tailor’s dummy adorned with the royal regalia of France.
In a wonderful cinematic moment, the waiting peasants bare their heads and fall to their knees. Even the sceptical intellectuals find it difficult to resist the urge to doff their hats and bow low.
Monarchy weilds only as much power as people are willing to give it. Our ancestors long ago stripped the British monarchy of all but a recondite residue of its former political authority. What is it, then, about Queen Elizabeth and her peculiar family that continues to enthral a clear majority not only of her British subjects, but of New Zealanders as well? What is it that could possibly make our ruthless, currency-trader Prime Minister sit like an excited schoolboy on the edge of his seat in a stuffy Balmoral drawing-room?
The Frankfurt School’s, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) would tell us that New Zealanders’ on-going love affair with the British Royal Family, and the monarchical institutions they inhabit, stems from our abiding fear of, and desire to “escape from freedom”.
To be truly human, Fromm argued, men and women must free themselves from all that obscures the realities of existence. Our unique capacity to reason and to love makes each human life a challenging and painful experience; it can also make life glorious and transcendent.
For too many of us, however, the dangers and uncertainties of freedom keep us in a child-like state of fear and neediness. Thinking for ourselves is difficult and risky; better by far to adhere to the collective wisdom. Ruling ourselves is also difficult and risky; better by far to be guided by the myths and traditions of the past.
Living in a republic there is nothing and no one to look “up” to: we can only look “around” – to ourselves.
But, in a monarchy, there is always somewhere safe to hide.
Even behind a prim old woman, in a stuffy drawing-room, in Scotland.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 October 2013.


Anonymous said...

Come on Chris, the rich have always kissed the arses of the aristocracy in a bizarre exchange of money for political and social status. As for the rest it's just a reflex forehead knuckling. And if you read American news sites it's almost as bad there :-). If anyone actually stopped and thought they'd realise how irrelevant they are. Not only irrelevant, but racist and pig ignorant as well. Fit in quite well with the ruling classes here. Of course it wouldn't matter if John Key hated them, it's a photo op. :-)

Glenn Webster said...

Sadly,those who do not understand the monarchy are determined to so continue.
Just as Jonkey and his cronies cannot possibly understand why they should care one iota about those poorer than themselves there are those on the left-yes,thats you Chris,who choose not to understand.
You write and say some very good journalism but you are as blind as your opponents on this topic.

Kat said...

For the same reason the Queen keeps Corgis we keep Royalty.

Anonymous said...

Before we can establish the Republic of Aotearoa New Zealand, we need to get the population "matured" enough, to be able to think for themselves and to act responsibly for themselves.

Sadly I see only some capable of doing this in this small Antipodean lots of isles, as the America's Cup showed once again, how "childishly" prone to manipulation and artificially generated excitement most here are.

Cheering on some overpaid "yachties", who are nothing but "gladiator" like mercenaries for giant corporates and their profit oriented causes (achieved through media attention for top marketing effects), and screaming "we, we, we nearly won it", that leaves a lot of questions open, whether NZers are "ready" for this.

The brainwashing through over commercialised media and information technology, the mad consumerism, the desperate attempt to identify with some artificial constructs that mean nothing, otherwise a society full of voids and division, that represents a highly worrying and vulnerable populace, who have never learned much to think critically and analytically. They do not even know how to communicate in many cases, and hence this desperate clinging to 'traditional symbolism", like the royals and all that crap that comes with it.

As a migrant I am still struggling to come to terms with my existence here. Am I one belonging here, I ask almost every day, as I cannot identify with most the nonsense that dominates daily news and media drivel, and I also am from a culture that is somewhat too different, making things extremely hard.

A society cannot exist and survive on such loose fabric as New Zealand presently bases its existence on. It is all just commercialism, commerce, consumerism, superficial, easy going lifestyle, work and spend, sleep and eat, and rush out of the city over weekends, to escape the doldrums of the 24/7. That to me is not culture or much to identify with, nor to live like.

Davo Stevens said...

Frankly I couldn't care less about that dysfunctional family on the other side of the world.

What I do care about is NZ becoming a Republic when what we have works for us okay right now.

Do we want or need to be spending millions on some politician who wants to be King/Queen of NZ? What would we gain from that?

Currently the Governor is appointed by the gubbies in power at the time and has no political affiliation usually. That's the way it should be.

alwyn said...

There are a number of advantages in having the British Royal Family providing our head of state.
Firstly they don't cost very much. The majority of their expenses are paid by the British Government.
Secondly we don't have to get involved in arguments as to how they are appointed. They are born, survive and take over the position in the family business. If we were to change the head of state I am quite sure that our Central Government politicians would want to appoint the President, for want of a better title, and the public would want to elect someone. Do we really want a US like multi-year campaign?
Personally I think we should go back to the system a hundred years ago. Let us have the Governor-General chosen from the richer members of the peerage. They used to give us things, rather than take as much as they can get from us for themselves. Look at Lord Plunket, giving us the Plunket Shield. Lord Ranfurly gave us the Ranfurly Shield. Lord Bledisloe gave us the Bledisloe Cup for rugby and another one for Maori farming, the Ahuwhenua Trophy. He also bought and donated to New Zealand the Treaty House and grounds at Waitangi.
The overseas GGs also left the country at the end of their term, rather than hanging around demanding all the perks of office, such as unlimited use of the Crown Limo service, for the rest of their lives.
No keep the monarchy and bring back the old way of picking Governor-Generals.

NB. This is all tongue in cheek by the way.

Victor said...

Personally, I'm fond of the monarchy. But that probably merely reflects my personal background, as I come from a family that fled to Britain from less happy lands and viewed the Crown as the ultimate guarantor of its members' lives and freedom.

I'm happy to accept that my own personal sensibilities don't mean much to other people and that they have every right to be republicans if that better fits their sense of political aesthetics.

But what interests me far more is the way that JK has got himself and the family invited to Balmoral. Why this signal honour, which is not normally granted to even the most pro-monarchy Commonwealth prime ministers? Even Johnny Howard wasn't, to the best of my knowledge, equivalently honoured.

Is JK looking after the Windsors' share portfolio? Has he applied for a post-2014 job as keeper of the Royal Household (with peerage thrown in)? Is he making a long-term pitch for the Commonwealth Secretariat? Is William due out here for a spell as trainee monarch/ rescue pilot? Is there a Royal love-child dwelling amongst us and in need of identity protection?

Surely there's a story here for our newshounds to investigate! But, true to form, they don't seem to have scented it.

Anonymous said...

Don't care HOW we get a GG as long as it's cheap, and they stick to opening supermarkets and the like. The moment they do a Kerr - to the lampposts.